NOT MANY REPORTERS can claim a secret handshake with the Mayor of Philadelphia.

One who can is also a mayor: Toby Rich, or the "Mayor of Girard Avenue," as he is known in his column for the venerable weekly Philly newspaper SCOOP U.S.A.

Dressed in his usual oversize, stylish T-shirts and Jeff caps, sometimes clutching a cane or chewing on a stick, Rich stands quietly at news conferences in the corner of the mayor's reception room in City Hall, almost always posing the first question. Every big name at a City Hall news conference - Ed Rendell, Chaka Fattah, Hillary Clinton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bill Cosby, P. Diddy - has been subjected to at least one Rich question.

"All of the different elites who show up at the mayor's reception hall, they've got to wonder about the guy strolling in with the hip-hop T-shirt, always with a hat," said Mark McDonald, Nutter's press secretary and a former Daily News City Hall reporter. "He doesn't dress like, act like or talk like mainstream reporters, but he is every bit a fixture of the process in these parts."

Every day Rich, 57, boards the Route 18 bus to the Broad Street Line toward City Hall, where he arrives at 7:45 a.m., dropping off newspapers at the Mayor's Office or delivering packages for staffers at various city buildings, all the while chatting up the powers that be or kicking it with security officers on the second floor.

Rich wasn't always so bold.

"When I first came in here, my knees were buckling," Rich recalled. "For a minute I forgot my question . . . but then it came back . . . : 'Do you think there would be a chance for any ex-offenders to get meaningful employment?' "

Then-Mayor Rendell responded: "Yes. In time."

A second home

Hailing from the gritty streets of East Germantown, Rich has found a second home in City Hall, where he is the latest in a long line of characters to walk the winding halls and everybody who's anybody in local government knows and respects the man whose journey has been anything but easy.

He struggled with drug addiction for much of his life while rotating among a residential substance-abuse treatment program, a homeless shelter, Narcotics Anonymous meetings and several short stints in prison for petty crime.

It was just another day on the corner of Broad Street and Girard Avenue 19 years ago when the late Lillia E. Crippen, also known as Mom Crippen - Philadelphia's own Mother Teresa - overheard Rich gabbing away and suggested he put his words onto paper.

"I said, 'Sure, who is gonna want to hear me talk and speak to people?' " Rich recalled.

He met with SCOOP U.S.A. editor and publisher R. Sonny Driver, who told him to write something.

"For some reason, he liked what I wrote," Rich said. "He got a response, and the rest is just history."

Rich's "weekly raps" are often colloquial crusades to end youth violence, assist ex-offenders with meaningful employment, spread love and promote positive people.

"I was a creep. I was rotten," Rich said. "I did a lot of stuff. I need to pay back. I feel this is my way of trying to pay back and give to my community."

In a recent issue of the newspaper, Rich focused on how to help young people get and maintain employment.

"You cannot come to a job interview with your pants down below your underwear and you have to talk with respect," Rich wrote. "These are our children. . . . We must understand that something went wrong in teaching them how to grow up. . . . We must help them and everybody else that wants and needs help."

"He cares very passionately about this city," said Mayor Nutter, who has known Rich since his days as a city councilman. "He is the epitome of the citizen servant. He just does it out of love for Philadelphia."

Every Tuesday, Rich can be found on the second floor of City Hall meticulously scribbling his column onto a yellow notepad, or roaming through South Philly, Germantown, Nicetown or Girard Avenue, where passers-by shout his name and drivers honk their horns to show the "Mayor" love.

"If you want to get information to people about initiatives or meetings . . . he has a network of friends," said Councilman Darrell Clarke.

Rich's days typically end at 7 or 8 p.m., when he heads to either his NA meetings or an organizational function and eventually home, where he rents a room in a house a couple of doors away from where he grew up.

A rough beginning

Rich's blue eyes saw it all as a teenager growing up on Magnolia Street near Walnut Lane.

"We constantly saw death," said Rich, adding that by the time he was a young adult, he'd lost a number of friends to drugs and gang violence.

Rich was only 8 when his mother died. Many years later, he realized he had never dealt with the agony.

"When she died, selfishly I was lost. I felt abandoned," Rich said. "Growing up without my mother makes me wonder: Could I have been a different person? Would it have made me a better person? I think God did what he had to do, and that's my reality."

Rich and his two siblings were raised by their father, who often juggled three jobs to keep the family together and eventually to pay for college tuition.

But Rich saw how his pop struggled to pay for his older sister's tuition, and he decided not to attend college.

"I thought since my sister was going to college there was no way my father could pay for both," Rich said. "I told him I would work. I had a want to go, but when I saw how hard he was working . . . I had to be the one to make that sacrifice."

Young Rich began to admire the local hustlers with their shiny Cadillacs and fancy clothing - products of the dope game, which lured him.

He started dealing dope at 14. Two years later he was busted by the police after he was caught shooting up in a schoolyard.

"I struggle with it all of my life. Addiction never goes away," Rich said. "You deal with it every day."

From there he went to Gaudenzia, a residential drug-and-alcohol-treatment program, for three years, followed by a few more brushes with the law for parole violations, drug offenses and a couple of assault charges.

"Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future," said Tiki Moore, a medical assistant at a health center on Broad Street near Girard Avenue, who recalled the days when she saw Rich roaming through the streets high. "He went from being an addict to a hero."

In the late '60s, Rich and others launched an organization called Brothers of Solid Soul, also known as Club BOSS, members of different gangs trying to stop violent crime.

Years later, he became vice president of the Philadelphia Association of Former Gang Members and Friends, in which he orchestrates meetings to persuade youth and warring neighbors to find nonviolent ways to cope with their differences.

"He made a lot of wrong choices in his life. He was one of those kids," said Rich's daughter, Dior Rich, 34. "He went through a struggle in the process to get to where he is."

Ten years ago, the Mayor of Girard Avenue found himself sprawled across a bed inside the Ridge Avenue shelter. By this time, he'd given up, and had tucked a note with some cash underneath a pillow. Rich, a father of two, had recently divorced his wife and had lost his way. He wanted to end his life.

"I took enough pills to kill an elephant," Rich said. "I was so guilt-ridden. I was disappointed in myself."

By the grace of some higher power, he woke up hours later, feeling like hell after downing a bottle of sleeping pills.

It took some time, but eventually he changed.

"I learned that I didn't have to punk out on myself," Rich said. "Wanting to take my own life made me want to live life."

'Love yourself'

Last month, Bunmi Samuel, an educator and entrepreneur, invited Rich to speak to students from the Philadelphia Freedom School during a rally outside City Hall. Samuel had admired Rich's vocal support for students just before William Penn High School closed in 2009, and he figured Rich could offer these students some inspirational words.

"There's nothing wrong with loving yourself," Rich shouted into the microphone. "When other people see that you love yourself, they learn to respect you and they want to love you, too."

The crowd cheered.

Work never ends for the Mayor of Girard Avenue, who is either helping to arrange meetings between city officials and local organizations or providing his niece with advice on life. He hopes to write a book and find a way for schools to help recently released inmates transition into society. Additionally, he would like to try marriage again, and he aspires to own his own home - but if that doesn't happen, he said, he'll be all right.

"I'm in a content space," Rich said. "If I continue on this road, I'll become the happiest I could ever be."